Callaway County tries to close hunger gap

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CALLAWAY COUNTY – Many hungry children aren’t taking advantage of federal free lunch programs, but new ones are still popping up around the area.

Two new spots are offering free breakfast and lunch in Callaway County starting this week. Nicky Kemp, the assistant superintendent for North Callaway school district, says the school is serving about four times as many breakfasts as it does during the regular school year.

“Currently we have mostly just our summer school students that are taking advantage of it,” Kemp said about the Hatton McCredie Elementary School location. “But we are serving approximately 236 breakfasts each day and a little over 200 lunches each day.”

She said there's still too many hungry kids in the county that might not know about the free program.

The issue isn’t exclusive to Callaway County schools, though. The USDA says it helped serve “low-cost or free lunches to more than 31 million children each school day in 2012.” However, USDA statistics also say the average daily attendance for the Summer Food Service Program in 2015 was just under 2.6 million students.

Kemp hopes that because the Callaway sites are more rural than other locations, it will improve these numbers.

“The locations of the other ones aren’t close to our district and so we decided that it would be a great offering for our parents and community members,” Kemp said.

More than 50 sites in mid-Missouri offer free summer lunches to anyone 18 and under. Students don't have to qualify for free and reduced lunch to take advantage of the summer meals.

Schools are a popular sponsor of the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program, but there are many other public places serving free food as well. Columbia Public Health and Human Services Public Information Officer Andrea Waner says Douglass Park hosts one of the free food programs in Columbia.

“Last year we had 99 lunches leftover for the whole summer,” Waner said. “Any leftover perishable items are donated to various community shelters. Non-perishable items are brought back the next day to the lunches.”

 Waner says this way, food waste is kept to a minimum. Both women hope the abundance of summer lunch sites will encourage higher participation.

“As we progress through this next year and people know that this is an opportunity, our numbers will grow. Some of our daycares may start taking advantage of this as well as other community members,” Kemp said.

One kitchen worker says the program is worth it even if it only helps a few kids who wouldn’t be eating lunch otherwise.

“I love my kids. I look at all 300 of them as my own. I do it for them,” Kitchen manager Casey Lucas said.

Lucas says the number of kids eating food from her trays far outnumbers the amount of students bringing their lunch from home.